Every five years, pilgrims flock to the temple of the goddess Gadhimai in the small Nepalese border town of Bariyarpur to behead vast quantities of livestock over two days, creating scenes of carnage that revolt opponents of the practice.
In 2009, an estimated 250,000 animals were killed by men wielding traditional curved kukri knives during an event which attracted up to a million worshippersto the town 60 miles from Kathmandu.
Campaigners have attempted to frustrate the event or at least greatly reduce the number of animals killed. They say it is cruel because the animals suffer at the hands of untrained butchers, and that the piles of carcasses are a health hazard. Some argue that the event traumatises children. “The sights and sounds are unimaginable,” wrote Jayasimha Nuggehalli, director of the Indian branch of the Humane Society International. “Pools of blood, animals bellowing in pain and panic, wide-eyed children looking on, devotees covered in animal blood, and some people even drinking blood from the headless but still warm carcasses.”
Huge numbers of worshippers from Indian states where animal sacrifice is banned have already streamed across the border for the festival, which runs for weeks, even though the animal slaughter will take place on Friday and Saturday.
In September, the government of India ordered areas bordering Nepal to ban all animal exports to the neighbouring country throughout November. Indian activists have been patrolling the border to try to prevent the illegal export of livestock into Nepal, although only a few hundred have been seized.
Swami Agnivish, a well-known Indian politician and social activist, denounced animal sacrifice as “heinous and diabolical”.\
Campaigners claim the spread via social media of gory photos and videos of the 2009 event is eroding support inside Nepal.
“We are working on the ground trying to convince people that killing is inhumane no matter if it is in the name of god,” said Shristi Singh Shrestha, an activist in Nepal trying to convince those involved to become vegetarians. Umish Mainali, former head of Nepal’s ministry of home affairs, said people should be encouraged to sacrifice coconuts instead of animals.
But the event remains hugely popular in a traditional society where many believe a sacrifice to Gadhimai, also known as the goddess of power, will bring them prosperity and that eating the meat of ritually slaughtered animals will protect them from evil.
On Wednesday, as thousands of pilgrims flocked to the town with their sacrificial animals, Mangal Chaudhary, the Gadhimai temple’s high priest, said the world had to respect the traditional culture.“It’s the centre of our faith that Gadhimai is known for sacrifice of animals,” he said. “It is our tradition, so it will continue.”
Organisers have tried to deflect criticism that the mass killing in unsanitary conditions is unhygienic and could trigger an outbreak of anthrax. Ram Chandra Shah, chairman of Gadhimai Temple development committee, said government officials would be on hand to monitor the animals and check for disease.
The campaign against the killings has attracted foreign celebrity endorsement, including from actors Brigitte Bardot and Joanna Lumley.
But fefenders of the festival say foreign critics are guilty of double standards. “Only a vegetarian has the moral high ground to condemn the killings of any animal for religion, sport or food,” wrote journalist Deepak Adhikari in a recent article defending the festival. “For armchair western activists and local collaborators, the sacrifices represent their own festival of righteous indignation.”